James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano shaped New Jersey state of mind nationwide

Image: Michael Imperioli and James Gandolfini  appear in "The Sopranos." BARRY WETCHER / AP
Michael Imperioli, left, and James Gandolfini appear in "The Sopranos."

Governors don't release statements every time some local guy who made good passes on. But mere hours after the sudden death of James Gandolfini Wednesday, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey had something to say about his state's native son.

"It's an awful shock," said Gov. Christie in a statement. "James Gandolfini was a fine actor, a Rutgers alum and a true Jersey guy. I was a huge fan of his and the character he played so authentically, Tony Soprano. I have gotten to know Jimmy and many of the other actors in the 'Sopranos' cast and I can say that each of them are an individual New Jersey treasure."

As Christie noted, Gandolfini was New Jersey to the core --born, educated and made famous there. A Westwood native, Gandolfini graduated from Rutgers University in 1983 (the school inducted him into its Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2004 and said in a statement that the actor "was a proud and passionate supporter of the university for many years") and fittingly, when he finally broke through in Hollywood it wasn't on the West Coast -- it was thanks to his role as New Jersey resident Tony Soprano.

Christie wasn't the only politician to step in and embrace Gandolfini after his passing; New Jersey senator Robert Menendez said in a statement, "James Gandolfini was a distinctive, talented actor whose unforgettable performances made him a television icon.... His photograph has been displayed in my Washington, D.C. office for years as part of our New Jersey Wall of Fame."

Still, as a showcase for the state, "Sopranos" was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it focused on a niche culture of Italian-American gangsters while making extensive use of locations around the state. The series roamed easily between raw industrial warehouses, plush McMansioned suburbs and the lesser-known forested area known as the Pine Barrens, for which an entire episode was named.

James Gandolfini, 1961-2013

Image: James Gandolfini
Barry Wetcher

The award-winning actor made even brutal mob boss Tony Soprano seem likable, but that was far from his only role.

Fans responded by seeing the often-maligned state in a different light; maps and extensive lists sprung up pointing out key locations where scenes (and executions) took place. And then came the TV tourists, who wanted to visit anything "Sopranos"-related, who signed up for tours. On Location Tours still caters to fans who want to visit the Bada Bing, Father Phil's Parish and the restaurant booth where the Sopranos sat in their final scene in the series.

Not every New Jersey resident -- or Italian-American -- loved Tony Soprano and his world; throughout the series run anti-defamation activists protested the portrayal of their ethnic group. Show creator David Chase rarely commented on that topic, noting to a group of TV critics in January 2000 that the activists tended to overlook, for example, that the show's psychiatrist played by Lorraine Bracco was also Italian-American. "They just talk about this gangster s--- and it's really tiresome," he said then.

In the end, "Sopranos" opened up New Jersey in more ways than could be counted, by filming on location and beefing up the TV industry there, by making it appealing and sexy and dangerous for fans of the show, and by turning it from a perceived series of exits on the drive between Philadelphia to New York -- into a place of myth and power.

No wonder power is now reaching back. As Newark Mayor Cory Booker tweeted, "My condolences to the family and all those who loved James Gandolfini - a true NJ Great and NJ Original. RIP."


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